How wooden bricks can build a world : the Play Well exhibition at the Wellcome Gallery

Simple wooden toys: bricks with holes and sticks to connect them.Little wooden cubes and balls, plain and smooth, tiny wooden squares and triangles, painted in primary colours, all elevated to the status of exhibits in glass cases. Contemporary art perhaps? Much better.

The next case shows a wooden model of the iconic modernist home, Fallingwater, by Frank Lloyd Wright, with his claim that the toy bricks in preschool had influenced his creations. Then there is an old-fashioned, threadbare, teddy-bear with some red wool on his stomach: the boy who had opened the body and sewn it up again became a veterinarian doctor.

We are in the Wellcome Collection in London, on the Euston Road, in a free exhibition on children’s play throughout the past few generations. Be prepared to break out into inarticulate exclamations of delight when you spot ‘your’ antiquated Lego bricks or hideous Barbie dolls. Mostly it is photographs and films, though, a sociological analysis of play and its various uses in education.

The voices of children are given ample room in interviews and documentaries. There is also a play area, although adults seem reluctant to use it, and there are, in fact, works of modern art. Some of them are shown exposed to little boys who take them apart and kick the parts around with a great din, but also undertake to stick them together to new sculptures, or is that playthings?

Children playing with wrecked cars between bleak brick houses.

There are entire playgrounds created by children: either with materials on grounds given to them for the purpose, or out of junk in disused urban spaces. Neither would be acceptable with today’s health and safety regulations: kids disembowelled cars, lit fires, and erected a famous wonky tower. A rather shocking snapshot has children dancing on graves and skipping over headstones; yet the fact which should shock us more is their restriction to a cemetery as their only green outdoors space.

The show follows the shifting focus from outdoors to indoors play, ending with the first computer games and with teenagers who have never been to the park down the road. The research into kids’ unsupervised movement from six miles three generations ago to literally the end of the road today looks particularly impressive on the satellite map of a suburban area – miles of fields and woods, still there at the edge of a city, but untrodden now by youngsters’ soles.

A large graph on the wall proves that children still appreciate physical activities; but instead of rough and tumble play and free roaming, they participate in sports, organised and supervised, as I assume. Digital and other types of quiet play have evidently increased, while pretend play has dropped enormously. This must be as worrying as the decline of exercise. Some more objects in showcases, some of them found objects, remind us that a young mind can transform everything into something else – the simpler the thing, I reckon, the richer the possibilities!

“Let’s plan my dream wedding”  versus “Vengeance is mine”. Dolls, 1990’s.

Debates on gender stereotypes in toys and games are due in this context, and the Wellcome obliges with a hilarious report on the Barbie Liberation Organization. I will not spoil your amusement at their subversive sabotage of those grotesquely exaggerated male and female dolls! It took place one generation ago – yet attitudes have moved backward as well as forward, as the adjacent display of Lego kits in sugary pink and turquoise demonstrates. If you like, look at my previous blogposts on historical gender-specific play and reading.

Hulk with diabetes device, Black Barbie with discoloured skine, playmobil figure in wheelchair.

A Barbie model with discoloured skin and a Hulk with diabetes knocked me out but should not have – I read about a diverse and inclusive society every single day, especially in London, so children’s books and games and toys should reflect it. Moreover, we get a glimpse of play centres for refugees, popping up in the nowhere of camps but adhering to detailed plans.

Some child psychologists and educationalists have put play into the centre of their approaches. The work of Friedrich Fröbel, for instance, features in this exhibition, starting with the lovely boxes of simple blocks and pegs, rings and strings. The Reggio Emilia schools, founded after the war by citizens not experts, fill one wall of the gallery.

Simple fabric toys: colourful knitted balls with loops.

If you want to learn more about these psychological and educational theories, a number of nearby University College London libraries are a good place to start.

The Newsam Library at the UCL Institute of Education holds plenty of literature on Lowenfeld and Winnicott, Fröbel and Reggio Emilia, and other teaching systems, like those of Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner. The IOE Archives and Special Collections are full of treasures of child psychology, and obviously, education.

Book cover, bright yellow, playful.Current research into play is likewise covered by the Newsam Library; so are concrete suggestions for early years teachers and parents, since the IOE started out as a teacher training college and proudly continues as such.

The book published by the Wellcome Collection in conjunction with the exhibition, Michael Rosen’s book of play, has just hit our shelves, full of ideas for children of all ages. You can also buy it at the Wellcome shop next to the gallery right away.

Book coverAlso just in is a beautiful volume about Reggio Emilia preschools, combining philosophy of education with philosophy of architecture and richly illustrated with photographs. A metaproject for an environment for young children proposes “diversified, stimulating, and welcoming” school buildings and grounds, “a serene, amiable, livable place”. I assume we all wish we could have enjoyed that.

Play is serious, Rosen claims, developing creativity and resilience… If only we could find the time. Or make the time. Switch the screens off. Or switch our minds off. You have got a world in your head. Plenty of worlds.

Simple red toy block in the shape of a bridge.Play Well runs at the Wellcome Collection until 8 March 2020. Entrance free. Do not forget to visit the Wellcome Library also!


Simple green toy block in the shape of a vault.

Michael Rosen’s book of play : why play really matters, and 101 ways to get more of it in your life. London : Wellcome Collection, 2019.

Picture credits:

Yellow or light green Lego brick.Wooden toys; fabric toys: reprinted from Inventing Kindergarten by Norman Brosterman, collection Elyse and Lawrence B. Benenson.

Yellow or light green Lego brick.

Children in abandoned cars, Manchester, 1968 or 1969: photograph by Shirley Baker. ©2019 Nan Levy for The Estate of Shirley Baker.

Yellow or light green Lego brick.

Barbie Doll and G.I. Joe; Action Man, Barbie Doll, Playmobil figure: photographs by Thomas Farnet. ©2019 Wellcome Collection.

Toy block, red and Toy block, green: by An-d [CC BY-SA 3.0]. Yellow or light green Lego brick.Lego brick, light green: by Stilfehler [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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